MOBILE, Ala. – Ryan Aplin's productive passing career helped carry Arkansas State to two Sun Belt Conference championships.
For his final college game, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior didn't have to be the hero.
Aplin completed 21 of 30 passes for 213 yards and a touchdown and J.D. McKissic caught 11 passes for 113 yards and a touchdown, but it was a bruising defense that was the biggest factor in Arkansas State's 17-13 victory over No. 25 Kent State on Sunday in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
"You always hope to blow the other team out, but tonight was one of those grinds," Aplin said. "The saying goes that defense wins championships, and they won it for us tonight. I'm their biggest fan."
Arkansas State's offense was dominant during the last half of the regular season, averaging more than 41 points during a seven-game winning streak. But big plays were hard to find on Sunday night, and the Red Wolves (10-3) leaned hard on their defense to capture their first bowl win since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1992.
It's also the first time Arkansas State has beaten a nationally ranked opponent.
The victory didn't come without some drama. Kent State (11-3) was driving late in the game when quarterback Spencer Keith tried to scramble on fourth down and was stopped a few yards short of the marker with 52 seconds left. Linebacker Qushaun Lee made the shoestring tackle for the Red Wolves and finished with a team-leading 13 stops.
"That was a good one," Arkansas State interim coach John Thompson said. "Our guys stepped up with a minute to go. We really needed a play, and our guys made one. It wasn't anything except for ballplayers. It was anything special at all. We just made plays."
Darrell Hazell roamed the Kent State sideline one more time in the Golden Flashes' first bowl game since 1972. He is leaving the program to take over at Purdue.
"It's hard not to come away with a win," Hazell said. "I have some strong feelings for the guys right down the hallway here. I'm going to miss those guys."
Arkansas State's great defense is a sign the program might keep up its winning ways even without Aplin, who ends his career with nearly every school passing record. New coach Bryan Harsin — who is known for his work as the offensive coordinator at Texas and Boise State — takes over a program that has won 20 games over the past two seasons.
Thompson, a veteran defensive coordinator, coached the Red Wolves on Sunday after Gus Malzahn left to take the Auburn job last month. It was the second straight season Arkansas State had to play its bowl game without the coach that led it to a Sun Belt championship — Hugh Freeze left for Mississippi in 2011 before last year's GoDaddy.com Bowl, which the Red Wolves lost 38-20 to Northern Illinois.
The results were much better this time — and the defensive-minded Thompson was especially pleased with that side of the ball.
Kent State took a 7-0 lead on Dri Archer's 16-yard touchdown run and the margin could have been worse, but Arkansas State linebacker Nathan Herrold picked off a tipped pass in the end zone to end a promising drive for the Golden Flashes.
Arkansas State's David Oku rushed for a tying 10-yard touchdown with 5:40 remaining in the second quarter, and then Aplin hit McKissic for a 31-yard touchdown minutes later to make it 14-7.
This wasn't one of Aplin's more spectacular games, but he was consistent, made very few mistakes and had no turnovers.
That was no small feat against Kent State, which led the nation with 38 takeaways coming into the game. The Golden Flashes couldn't get one against the Red Wolves.
"That was a huge part of our game plan," Aplin said. "We knew we couldn't afford to give them momentum. Our guys did a great job taking care of the ball and giving our defense a chance to help us win."
Kent State responded with a 42-yard field goal by Freddy Cortez just before halftime to pull within 14-10. The teams traded field goals in the third quarter, but neither team could score in the fourth.
The Golden Flashes put together one last drive in the final minutes, with Keith completing a clutch 15-yard pass over the middle on fourth down with less than two minutes remaining. He was headed for another fourth-down conversion just four plays later, but was tripped up on a scramble deep in Arkansas State territory. The Red Wolves then began to celebrate on their sideline.
"I saw their defense drop back really fast, and I thought I had enough room to get the first down," Keith said. "But they were able to get me on the ankle."
It was a disappointing end to an otherwise breakthrough season for Kent State, which set a school record with 11 victories, including a 10-game winning streak that lasted nearly three months. But they dropped their last two games, including a 44-37 double-overtime loss to Northern Illinois on Nov. 30 in the Mid-American Conference championship.
One reason Kent State was able to win so many games was a dynamic rushing attack that averaged more than 250 yards per game. But the duo of Archer and Trayion Durham didn't have a particularly good game against the Red Wolves.
Archer, who missed much of the second half with an apparent injury, led the Golden Flashes with 77 yards rushing while Durham added 68. Keith completed 17 of 33 passes for 157 yards and one interception.
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